The Darkest Midnight: Prologue

Cumbria, Northern England
01 November

It felt ridiculous to fear a dead man, but as Cormac walked the cold, deserted passageways of his father’s underground stronghold, he did exactly that. Habit, he supposed. Dead was dead. The only ghosts he might encounter lurked not in any actual darkened corner but in his own mind. The ghosts of memory. Of fear, pain, sorrow. Loneliness.

He ducked a low, rough-hewn beam as he rounded a tight turn. Either the long-ago people who had carved these tunnels deep within the mountain had been considerably shorter than Cormac’s five-foot-nine, or they hadn’t time— or perhaps permission—for comfort.

His boot slipped when the passageway, slick with ice, took a steep downward slant. But rather than slow, he increased pace. With every second the air felt a little thinner, smelled a little ranker; and the walls, already close enough, seemed to push in closer still. If not for his bargain with Murphy, he’d never have returned to Fiend’s Fell.

The temperature was cold enough to chill even an American’s beer, but he was sweating beneath his jacket, the cotton of his shirt sticking uncomfortably to his back. It was absurd, this anxiety. As far as his Sight could tell, the stronghold was deserted. Whomever and however numerous its current inhabitants might be, all must have accompanied his father to Orkney, and so either lay dead at the Ring of Brodgar or were on the run from there. Should they seek to return here, even if they could travel the ley lines, it would take them a good while.

No, he had nothing to fear from his father’s followers… nor from the man himself. With the memory, the feel of Idris Cathmor’s death but two hours fresh, Cormac ought to know better than anyone.

His hands itched, the nerves not yet recovered from being the conduit for so much power. His throat burned from shouting. Screaming, if he cared to be accurate—which he did not. He’d put genuine emotion on display several times already this night, which made several times too many.

His feelings, his fears, every one of them left unguarded when he’d seen Thia about to run headlong into the deadly protection spells that kept them captive inside the Ring of Brodgar. And again when he’d held her as her body struggled to adjust to the newly-introduced powers of the Cailleach. And, worst of all, when the Society of the Brigantium had used him as a conduit to kill Idris.

That one had been the most public, no question. Even with battle raging throughout Brodgar, he and Idris and their dueling storms had doubtless attracted a good deal of attention. Then, once his father was down, with Cormac’s hands wrapped around his throat—Cormac shuddered, tamped down the memory before it could fully rise.

The Brigantium’s people had certainly seen and seized the opportunity to rid the world of a perceived evil.

Cormac couldn’t fault their perception. It was their method he was having trouble with.

The knowledge that if control hadn’t been taken from him in those last moments, he might have done the deed himself was not sitting too well, either.

Guilt. It didn’t eat at him, as some had described the sensation. No. It invaded, thickened the blood and turned marrow cold. Threatened to transform him utterly if left unchecked.

He had nothing against it. Hell, he deserved it, didn’t he? Not just guilt over Idris, but over Thia too.

He rubbed his chest, the unconscious gesture doing nothing to ease the ache summoned by her name alone.

After a sequence of counterintuitive turns, he entered a hexagonal antechamber. Disbelief hit hard.

The doors to Idris’s most secure store-rooms were wide open. Every single one. The protective wards that should have shimmered in Cormac’s Sight were gone.

He didn’t need to shine the light of his electric torch inside to see that they had all been emptied, yet he did. Nor did he need to enter them one by one, yet he did.

Nothing of significance remained. And, given the lack of any energy remnants—remnants that should have overwhelmed, considering what had been held within—the room had been magically scoured.

He braced his hands on either side of an empty niche at the back of the room and dropped his head forward, his brow pressing into the stone. Eyes closed, he breathed in the dank, familiar smell of failure.

The Achill Bell, promised to Declan Murphy upon pain of death, was gone.

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© R. A. Finley — All Rights Reserved No portion of this text may be reproduced or used without permission
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